Whiteboard strategy sketch To improve employees’ health care literacy and empower smart decision-making, employers must take steps to build a comprehensive, year-round benefits communications plan. (Image: Chris Nicholls)

The open enrollment period is complete at most organizations – congratulations, employers! This year’s open enrollment season required special attention and effort from most HR teams and their partners. Communicating with a remote workforce and answering questions about health plans in the middle of a pandemic – it’s not easy. It’s also not over.

Open enrollment is just the gateway into employers’ year-round benefits communications efforts. While helping employees choose a plan is important work, it doesn’t guarantee that employees will know how to use it effectively throughout the year. In a 2020 consumer survey, less than one-third of respondents knew how concepts such as coinsurance, premiums and allowed amounts applied to their coverage. Yet, interestingly, 67% of the same respondents said they were confident they understood how their health plan works. This contradiction paints a similar picture seen throughout the industry – that almost all Americans overestimate their understanding of health insurance concepts (that is, their health literacy).

Related: 4 reasons to invest in employee health education

Why does this matter? Low literacy has been linked to higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services – both of which, of course, drive up health care costs. And almost half of employee say they waste up to $750 a year because of poor decisions about their benefits.

Add to this confusion about testing for, treatment of and vaccination against COVID-19, and it’s clear year-round benefits communications should be a priority, not an afterthought. Employees need access to accurate, consistent information about their plans so they can make truly cost-effective health care choices each and every time they need care. To improve employees’ health care literacy and empower smart decision-making, employers must take these steps to build a comprehensive, year-round benefits communications plan.

1. Identify what employees need to know.

With open enrollment complete, HR teams should have a good sense of their employees’ knowledge gaps. HR can start by reviewing which questions employees asked most often in 2020 and which topics confused them most. These areas can guide benefits messaging – and channels – in 2021.

For example, Summary Plan Descriptions (SPDs), can and should be the go-to resource for employees when they have questions about their benefits. By updating their SPDs to address employees’ FAQs –and using graphics, readable text and simple language to increase their readability – employers can significantly improve health literacy. And, by offering interactive SPDs – which typically include a data analytics component – HR can track areas of confusion and further identify areas they need to target.

How to shop for health care services should probably top the list for 2021. According to the 2020 consumer survey, 68% of respondents only sometimes, rarely or never compare treatment or service costs from different providers (or pharmacies) before choosing where or how they get care. Yet the cost for the same procedure can vary by thousands of dollars across different providers, facilities and locations. Thirty-one percent of respondents saved $500-$1,000 or more on a single service by comparing options first. Yet so few employees are taking this step – and it’s a missed opportunity on the employer’s part. Of the respondents who said they never compared service costs beforehand, 67% said they didn’t know they could.

It’s important for employers to focus on the importance of comparing health care costs – especially with new transparency regulations set to take effect over the next few Januarys.

While online medical cost estimators can help employees get a sense of what a procedure may cost them, employers must expand on how the tools work, what the information means and how this price information can have a real impact on employees’ wallets.

2. Leverage your communications channels

Successful year-round education campaigns depend on reaching your employees where, and when, they are to make sure they have accurate information on a timely basis. Employers need to use channels that are targeted and convenient for employees – so they are more likely to engage with the material. Anytime employees source information from someone who is not a benefits expert or who doesn’t know their employer’s specific plan, they risk encountering misinformation and bias.

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how to make effective use of media that reach remote workers in real time. Online webinars, interactive digital flyers, educational videos, QR codes, text messages and Tweetchats and virtual benefits helped convey consistent, accurate information during this year’s open enrollment. These tools—especially when supplemented by targeted print materials—can be deployed year-round to share important information with employees. For instance, younger employees may prefer receiving text messages with a link to a webinar on surprise billing, whereas other employees may prefer an email or even a mailed print-out packet with all the information covered in the webinar.

No matter the channel, employers must go beyond covering the basics of how coverage works in 2021. Communications should also address top-of-mind issues related to the pandemic – such as the short- and long-term side effects of COVID-19 recovery, the impact of delayed vaccinations and preventive care, rescheduling postponed and elective procedures, and hospital closings and provider retirements. The more consistently that employers send out communications, the more likely that smart health care spending will stay top of mind for employees throughout the entire year. This regularity is the key to improving health literacy and plan usage in the long term.

3. Bring in outside support

The 2020 consumer survey showed that four in 10 respondents educated themselves about health insurance terms and processes (e.g., how to find an in-network provider). Sadly, this “self-education” often takes the form of online searches or questions to friends and families – who typically are NOT expert in employee benefits, or the employer’s plans. And while online information can be useful, not every site provides accurate information, nor can every site possibly address each employee’s specific situation.

To ensure employees have access to accurate and meaningful information they can use, consider partnering with a health care advocacy firm. Health care advocates can provide one-on-one support for employees year-round – answering questions about health care coverage, reviewing and resolving medical bills, helping determine if a provider is in-network, arranging for second opinions and more. By providing real-time, year-round access to experts, employers can free up their HR team (and brokers) to focus on more strategic matters. More importantly, by helping employees make educated choices about their consumption of health care, both employees and the employer can save money.

Benefits communications will look different for each employer, but each program should be supported by the same pillars:

  • Ensuring you know what information employees need
  • Using every available channel and targeting messaging appropriately
  • Providing personalized, year-round support

Now that open enrollment has come to a close, keep the lines of communication open with employees. It is the most powerful way employers can make an impact on employees’ lives, spending and health literacy – for themselves and their families.

Kim Buckey is vice president of client services for DirectPath.

Read more: